Poor appetite for reading

Run-down buildings and crimes on every street corner – is that how central Johannesburg is portrayed? NAI guest researcher Kudzayi Ngara examines urban spaces in literature.

Contemporary literature in South Africa is not as outspokenly political as it used to be in the 1970s or 1980s, according to Ngara, but many novels deal with coping with everyday struggles – survival and in some cases even a decent life. However, for the authors themselves, it is difficult to live as writers. Only a few gain international attention, and being famous in South Africa is not enough. Nic Mhlongo, one of the most prominent upcoming writers, still has to hold onto his civil service job, inspite of his obvious talent.

“There are just too few consumers. People do not have a culture of reading. They read only if they must in their profession or for their education. Over the years, several attempts to encourage youth to read have failed, and with the recent competition from iPads and Playstation, the task is not easy,” Ngara observes.

Lowered criterias

Instead of increasing the appetite for reading, universities have lowered their admissions criteria. Some students have managed to get through English programmes by just googling authors and text summaries, but never reading an actual book. Ngara finds this sad and worrying.

“All societies need people that imagine and have dreams. Many of the new technologies and gadgets we see and use today were first imagined in literary texts and films. Reading and writing literature therefore opens up many new worlds of possibilities”, Ngara states.

Jo'burg is less divided

Kudzayi Ngara is based in Harrismith, in the Free State province of South Africa, but lived in Cape Town when he decided to focus his PhD research on literary representations of Johannesburg.
“Johannesburg is a gateway to South Africa as well as to the continent. The city’s cosmopolitan feel fascinates me. It is also less divided along ethnic lines, compared to Cape Town, which is still rather a ‘white city’,” Ngara remarks.

However, ever since the ending of apartheid in 1994, the white population in Johannesburg has been moving out of the city centre in increasing numbers. Now they live in nicer, sometimes fortified neighbourhoods on the outskirts, where everything is close at hand so they don’t have to drive into the centre for shopping or business. Hillbrow is in downtown Johannesburg and has a less desirable reputation. People who could afford to moved away, and those who remained are mainly poor African migrants as well as poor local black South Africans.

Few black characters

Ngara wrote his doctoral thesis on South African author Ivan Vladislavić, who describes this change in Johannesburg in many ways. In the novel The Restless Supermarket, a retired proof-reader observes the country’s transformation in the 1990s and how black people move into the city centre. He is not delighted at the changes but has to deal with them.

“Vladislavić is a second generation South African who describes the transitional period from the last decade of apartheid to the emergence of the post-apartheid state and beyond. I, or a black writer writing about the same city, will naturally have different experiences, probably because we don’t visit the same areas, we go to different shops and pubs. While his writing provides many insights about Johannesburg, his texts are telling in that there are few fully developed black characters in his stories,” Ngara concludes.

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